The noble breakfast dish of kedgeree is a prime example of an Anglo-Indian culinary mash up, with its roots in khichri, a dish of spiced pulses mixed with rice which was already on the menu by the time the Moroccan explorer Ibn Batuta made it to Delhi in the mid-14th century.
The fish was a British introduction, as were the hard-boiled eggs. (Presumably we would have stuck some black pudding in there as well if Cook had happened across one in the cantonment stores.) Lizzie Collingham points out in Curry: a biography that fresh fish was already a staple of the Raj breakfast table, as, she quotes an early 19th century handbook as saying, "in the hot season, fish caught early in the morning would be much deteriorated before the dinner hour." It wasn't until the dish travelled back to the country homes of Britain that smoked haddock put in an appearance.
Madhur Jaffrey points out that the wetter end of the kedgeree spectrum is rather like a rice porridge, so it seems unsurprising that this, amongst all local dishes, became popular amongst the colonists. Not only would it have been vaguely familiar, but presumably, "like the local people, they found it … good for invalids or those with hangovers", as Sri Owen puts it in The Rice Book. Hear, hear – there's nothing better after a night on the sauce than a steaming bowl of comforting, lightly spiced rice, silky with butter and strewn with salty, smoky fish and fresh-flavoured herbs; it wakes up your palate and soothes the stomach.
It didn't take the Victorians long to adapt the dish to suit their own tastes. The 1885 edition of Culinary Jottings for Madras, a (recently reprinted) collection of cookery articles from the Madras Athenaeum and Daily News by an Indian Army colonel, gives a rather unappetising sounding recipe for kegeree (sic) of "the English type", "composed of boiled rice, chopped hard-boiled egg, cold minced fish, and a lump of fresh butter … tossed together in the frying-pan, flavoured with pepper, salt, and any minced garden herb such as cress, parsley, or marjoram, and served smoking hot." Not a spice in sight.
Interestingly enough, The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, an 1888 publication quoted in The Road to Vindaloo, an utterly fascinating study of the British love affair with curry, includes a plainer recipe, rather like a spiced paella, in its chapter on "Native Dishes" – but then its author, the redoubtable Flora Annie Steele, wasn't your average memsahib.
I fry sliced onions in a generous amount of "boiling ghee" then remove these from the pan and put in 4 tbsp "well-washed" rice and 4 tbsp dal (I used some surplus ready-cooked moong dal, but dry lentils should work just as well). Once these have absorbed the remaining butter, I add ginger, peppercorns, cardamom, cloves and a cinnamon stick, cover the lot with water, and leave it to simmer until almost dry. The dish is served with the fried onion scattered over the top – delicious (and quite a revelation for anyone who thinks themselves daringly modern for liking a bit of spice at the breakfast table), but definitely "kidgeree", as Mrs Steele has it, rather than kedgeree.
I find a recipe for "wet kedgeree" in The Prawn Cocktail Years, which Lindsay Bareham and Simon Hopkinson claim is "slightly controversial", possibly because it marries rice with a distinctly European white sauce.
While the rice cooks, I poach smoked haddock in milk, and then use this liquid to make a sauce thickened with flour and flavoured with cream, lemon juice, curry powder and sautéed onion. This is folded into the cooked rice and smoked fish, along with a small bunch of chopped chives, and the whole thing is topped with parsley and sliced boiled egg. It's undeniably comforting, but I think the cream dulls the spice and makes it into a fishy porridge, which, however authentic it may be, seems a shame. I like my kedgeree to have a bit more of a kick.
Despite saying one should be "generous with the butter and cream" in the preamble to her kedgeree recipe, Jane Grigson doesn't use any dairy products to actually make it – after poaching the smoked haddock in water, she uses the same liquid to cook the rice, flavoured with sautéed onion and curry powder. The two are then mixed together, with a knob of butter, and topped with lemon slices, egg, parsley and prawns.
It's a clever and economical technique, but again, the flavours of the finished dish are not as vivid as I would like. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher use a similar method in their River Cottage Fish Book (while suggesting smoked pollack instead of the more popular haddock), poaching the fish in milk instead, but again, I find this slightly bland.
Fish fried rice
The Leiths Fish Bible version is very different, and more in the spirit of the original Raj dish, designed to use up leftover rice, than the others. After poaching the haddock, I fry a chopped onion in an impressive amount of butter until soft, add turmeric, green chilli, curry powder and chopped fresh ginger, sauté them briefly, and then stir through the cooked rice fish and eggs. The flavours are striking, and the generous amount of butter makes the rice rich and moist.
Sautéing pre-cooked rice in butter and spices keeps the flavours fresh, and the texture fluffy, rather than mushy. Leiths add fresh ginger, which I don't like with smoked fish, but their fresh green chilli adds a nice touch of freshness to the dish, as does a garnish of finely chopped coriander, rather than the more usual parsley. The chives used by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsay Bareham contribute a savoury, tangy quality that works particularly well with the eggs. On that subject, it's very modish to substitute soft-boiled or poached eggs, but I prefer a distinctly Victorian solidity on this occasion.
Despite what many modern chefs seem to believe, old-fashioned curry powder is an absolute must here – a couple of separate spices, as used by Nigella, just doesn't create the same effect. Salmon, scallops, mackerel – even prawns, all seem wrong to me: the fish should be white, smoked, and sustainable. This is a breakfast that leaves you in no doubt you're alive and well: silver chafing dish optional.
450g basmati rice
500g smoked haddock
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 green chilli, deseeded and cut into thin rings
2 crushed cardamom pods
1 tbsp curry powder
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut in half
Small handful chives, chopped
½ lemon, cut into 4 wedges
Small bunch of coriander, chopped
1. Toss the rice briefly under running water and then put it in a large pan and cover with cold water. Leave for at least half an hour.
2. Drain the rice and discard the soaking water. Put it in a large pan on a medium heat with 585ml fresh water.
3. Bring to the boil, and give it a good stir. Cover tightly and turn the heat down very low. Cook for 25 minutes then take off the heat – don't take the lid off! – and place on a wet tea towel. Leave for five minutes then fork through to fluff up.
4. Meanwhile, put the fish, skin-side up, in a shallow pan over a low heat, and cover with boiling water. Allow to sit for 10 minutes, then take out of the water and, when cool enough to handle, pull the skin off and break into large flakes.
5. Melt the butter in a large frying pan over a lowish heat, and add the onion. Fry gently until softened, then stir in the chilli, cardamom pods and curry powder. Cook for a couple of minutes, then tip in the rice and stir to coat. Add the fish flakes and heat through. Taste and season.
6. Put the eggs on top, scatter with chives and coriander, and serve with slices of lemon to squeeze over.
Is kedgeree the breakfast of kings, or an aptly malodorous reminder of colonialism? Are there any other Anglo-Indian favourites which deserve to be better known – and can it really be true that kedgeree has its origins in Scotland rather than Shimla?